Superficiality of the Upper Class and Society’s Expectations

October 23, 2020 by Essay Writer

In comparing the Edwardian era – that is, the early 20th century – to the modern age, we can see that some distinct social constructs and class systems are present in both. However, social and class-related barriers are noticeably more porous in today’s world. George Bernard Shaw’s most famous play Pygmalion, set in Edwardian times, was perhaps a harbinger of this progressive shift, in its vigorous attempts to discredit and expose the superficiality of the class separations. The ‘heroine’ of the play, Eliza Doolittle, undergoes a dramatic and severe transformation from a ‘draggletailed guttersnipe’ to an unrecognizably polished lady, but she ultimately fails to integrate smoothly into the society which she so idolized at the play’s beginning. It is established and perpetuated throughout the play that Eliza is not exactly a predictable character: for a poor flower girl, she upholds moral decency and exhibits self-respect to a degree perhaps not even mirrored by the upper class with which these values were more commonly associated. Through the character of Eliza, and the treatment of Eliza by the upper class, Shaw exposes the superficiality of a class system which, in his view, is underpinned by a very shallow preoccupation with appearance and language. While it is evident from the preface that Shaw places great value on the power of language and the respect that it commands, through Pygmalion and its characters such as Doolittle, we also learn that control and mastery of language are not the be all and end all of a person’s character. High society however, seems not to notice this, and it is this cursory judgement of others by members of the upper class that Shaw aims to condemn through Pygmalion.

Early on, Eliza is very much the poor flower girl and street beggar who would have been a typical nuisance to the upper class theatre-goers who were expected to view Pygmalion; however, Eliza’s true self is anything but typical. Her complex character is gradually unfurled through aspects of her speech such as her frequent proclamations of her being ‘a good girl’, helping to convey her innate self-respect, and her later insight that she ‘sold flowers. [She] didn’t sell [herself].’ The upper class in Edwardian society generally held a steadfastly negative view of the poor like Eliza: it was presumed that in order to make ends meet, someone like Eliza would have resorted to selling her body. Eliza however, breaks this mould, and the audience becomes privy to Eliza’s seemingly unusual self-respect. Some of this is due to the unorthodox length of Shaw’s narrations, such as his description of Eliza being ‘as clean as she can afford to be’. This morality and decency can easily be compared to the values of the upper class, who are depicted throughout the play as treasuring morality, conveyed by their horror at Eliza’s careless attitude towards her father’s alcoholism, and their disdain towards her use of expletives. Furthermore, a sense of Eliza’s aspirations is conveyed through the fashion board of dresses, far beyond her means, which she keeps in her bleak lodgings, and by the ‘American alarum clock’. These possessions show her idolization of the upper society’s culture. Combined with her morality, her aspirations present to the audience a character who is almost worthy of the upper class, her potential and integrity obscured by the roughness of her appearance and language.

Once Eliza’s qualities are revealed, the way in which Eliza is treated by members of the upper class is examined — and is meant to be viewed by the audience as unjustified. The sensitivity of Eliza’s own nature is paramount, and is constructed through lines which attempt to reverse the dehumanization of Eliza (and other members of the lower class) by members of the upper class who were expected to view the play. As Eliza declares, ‘I got my feelings same as anyone else’. Once the audience understands how sensitive Eliza really is, and understands her general decency and self-aspirations, Higgins’ suggestions to ‘throw her back on the street’ once she has been toyed with in his experiment becomes uncomfortable for the audience. Ultimately, the play’s viewers and readers are forced to confront and reflect upon their behavior with a consideration for members of the poor such as Eliza. The external features of Eliza, such as her speech and appearance, are what impede her being accepted by the higher class. The rejection she experiences is fundamentally a product of superficiality — of the obsession of the upper class with outward appearances despite morality, tenacity, and general amiability.

The character of Doolittle, Eliza’s father, diametrically opposes that of his daughter. He is neither moral, nor ambitious. He does not claim to be one of the ‘deserving poor’, instead working just enough to be able to splurge on a drinking spree now and again, and he rejects any substantial amount of money for fear of the need for better behavior that would come with it. He does however, have an unusual affinity for language, or as Higgins puts it, ‘a certain natural gift of rhetoric’. Hints towards the upper class’ preoccupation with language are lain when Higgins states that, with his natural talent for poetic and persuasive speech, Doolittle ‘could choose between a seat in the Cabinet and a popular pulpit in Wales’ under his teaching, conveying the overwhelming focus of high society on language. Despite the comical nature of this statement, what later transpires in the play is noticeably similar to Higgins’ quip. While this comedy can keep an audience of well-to-do people pleased with its line-by-line cleverness, it also eventually serves an ironic purpose. The fact that Doolittle does become successful in the upper class, despite the initial absurdity of this idea, speaks volumes about the shallow nature of high society. After all, this society accepts Doolittle based on his linguistic ability alone, disregarding his obvious moral flaws — and disregarding the elite’s general claim to champion decorum and virtue.

Many parallels can be drawn between the character of Eliza Doolittle and the upper class. She respects herself, and her moral integrity is constantly conveyed through her protestations against Higgins’ stereotypical treatment of her. Even though the upper class essentially considered itself the paradigm of morality and virtue, the barrier between Eliza being accepted into a higher social milieu is not a lack of morals (as would be expected from a street beggar) but her speech and appearance. Higgins’ phonetic clients, similarly, ‘give themselves away every time they open their mouths’. The upper class’ inability to accept Eliza despite her alignment with so many of their supposed views is made even more ironic, and more noticeably shallow, when her father (who is in many ways less praiseworthy) makes a roaring success of himself among the upper class. Through Pygmalion, and through these two characters, Shaw exacts a scathing criticism of the superficiality of the upper class under the guise of the comedy and drama of the play. Shaw states in his preface that all art should be didactic, and he seems to have achieved both didactic and satisfying art with Pygmalion. The well-to-do members of the audience are ultimately forced to consider whether their treatment of others can truly be justified, and whether others can simply be taken on face value alone.

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